Monday, 12 February 2018

Teaching idea: heaven, hell, purgatory

Here’s an idea for a class I’ll be teaching next semester on Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. What do you think of this hell-purgatory-paradise schema? I wouldn’t aim to impose this rigidly on the texts. But it could be a way of encouraging students to look for broad patterns of continuity in the way these very different authors represent the spiritual order of the universe.

 DANTE
1.     Hell
2.     Purgatory
3.     Paradise (I)
4.     Paradise (II)

SHAKESPEARE
5.     Macbeth – hell
6.     King Lear (I) – purgatory
7.     King Lear (II) – purgatory
8.     The Tempest – paradise

MILTON
9.     Samson Agonistes – purgatory
10.  Paradise Lost (I) – hell
11.  Paradise Lost (II) – paradise
12.  Paradise Lost (III) – purgatory

Some other random observations about the three authors:
  • The use of light and darkness to depict spiritual realities – very important in Shakespeare too (cf. the use of darkness throughout Macbeth).  
  • The relation between visible and invisible realities. This is made doubly interesting in Milton, who draws attention to his own blindness even as he explores the boundary between the visible and the invisible.
  • The feminine principle in depictions of paradise. In Dante and Shakespeare, the love of a woman (Dante’s Beatrice; Cordelia’s love for her father in Lear; the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand in The Tempest) is the point at which the whole cosmic order is revealed and redeemed. Only in Milton is the redemptive principle purely masculine: woman is not a revelation of cosmic order but more like an obstacle that has to be overcome. (That is an overstatement about Milton, but I think the contrast to Dante and Shakespeare is a real one.)
  • For students looking for an extra challenge, an interesting essay topic would be to compare Blake's illustrations of these three authors. Maybe I'll do a bit of this in class as well. Dante and Milton are especially well suited to Blake's style of illustrating, which is to depict the spiritual sense of the text. Paradoxically, he often finds the spiritual sense by representing words with a scrupulous literalism – a technique that produces some amazing effects in his illustrations of Shakespeare. His painting Pity (pictured above) evokes spiritual reality through a literalistic depiction of a dense cluster of metaphors in Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air." 
  • Actually I think I need a whole additional class on Blake's illustrations.

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